4

Deputy Eddie Mitchell transferred Wesley Crocker out of the small, leak-stained plasterboard and industrial yellow police department office to the county Public Safety Building-more grand in name, but not much more-three blocks down the street.

Dr. Francis Guzman, Estelle’s husband and the county coroner, had ordered the victim’s body removed to the morgue at Posadas General. We still didn’t know who she was, or how she’d died. I sent Deputy Mitchell to shag the high school principal, Glen Archer, out of bed. If anyone knew the girl, he would.

Sheriff Martin Holman met me with a thinly veiled “I told you so” look when I walked into the sheriff’s office at 3:35 that morning. “Is Estelle on the way?” he asked. I nodded and headed for the coffeepot.

“Has Crocker said anything?” I watched the creamer dissolve into the oily surface of the coffee, the brew turning about the color of Portland cement.

Holman snorted derisively. “He’s just sitting there, hoping he can use his ‘get out of jail free’ card. I haven’t let anyone upstairs other than Howard Bishop. Howard’s keeping the suicide watch.”

I sighed and dropped the plastic spoon on the pad of paper towels.

“You ready to go on up?” Holman asked.

“I want to wait for Estelle.”

“Is Chief Martinez still out at the school?”

I nodded. I didn’t add what we both knew…that at the first opportunity, Chief Martinez would turn to Sergeant Torrez and say, “Well, you’ve got this pretty well nailed down,” and than Eduardo would nudge his big, comfortable Pontiac toward home, where he’d have the good sense to jump back in bed with his big, comfortable wife, Essie. Eduardo Martinez was chief because the Posadas council paid him $11,600 a year-three thousand less than a first-day rookie with the sheriff’s department. The village got what it paid for.

“What’s the matter?” Holman asked, and I realized with a start that I was staring vacantly at a spot about three feet under the floor tile. “What are you thinking?”

I shrugged. “Nothing, I guess,” and I started toward the stairs that led up to the three cells and the two small conference rooms on the second floor. With my hand on the bottom of the banister, I stopped and frowned. “Marty, what time did you get to the P.D.?”

“Tonight, you mean?”

“Yes.”

“I would guess maybe ten minutes before two. Something like that.”

“And someone called the police department’s number to report the body, not 911?”

“I assume so. Otherwise the call would have been routed through here.”

I glanced down the hall and could see our night dispatcher, Ernie Wheeler, sitting at the console, patiently waiting for something to happen.

“And the caller was anonymous.”

Holman nodded. He rubbed a hand on the side of his jaw, checking for the single, odd whisker that might have avoided his electric razor and that might end up in a photograph should the press corps be awakened. We heard the back door of the sheriff’s office open. “That should be her now,” he said, and in a moment Estelle Reyes-Guzman appeared in the dispatch hallway.

Her clothes were as plain as could be, a blouse and skirt of tan cotton that she laughingly called her “Taiwan suit” and a dark blue poplin windbreaker. Her long black hair was tousled and ignored. She still managed to look lovely. A month before she had stopped wearing the tailored pantsuits that had been her trademark. With her impeccable timing, the election would be history before she really started to show that her two-year-old son didn’t have much longer to enjoy his status as an only child.

A deep frown darkened her features. “Sir, I talked with Tom Pasquale over at the school. He said that the man in custody is an itinerant-that you gave him a lift into town yesterday?”

“Yes.”

“And that then the both of you”-she nodded at the sheriff as well-“saw him at the Don Juan after you bought him dinner?”

“Also true,” I said, and Holman’s head bobbed a little. I could see a flush crawl up from his collar. It wasn’t hard to figure out where Pasquale had heard the story.

Her frown deepened. “Maybe Pasquale knows something we don’t,” she said, half to herself.

“The man’s name is Wesley Crocker. He’s upstairs when you’re ready.”

“I’m ready,” she said.

“You want a cup of coffee or anything?”

She almost smiled at me. “No, sir.” She patted her stomach. “A green chili breakfast would taste good after a while though.”

I followed her up the stairs, with Sheriff Holman bringing up the rear.

Deputy Howard Bishop had moved Wesley Crocker to the smaller conference room, a twelve-by-fourteen affair with no windows. As we entered the room, Crocker was seated, his hands clasped in front of him on the table, handcuffed at the wrists.

“Take those off,” I said, and Bishop did so. Crocker just sat quietly, eyes fastened on the grain of the old oak table. When the notebooks and pencils and tape recorder and cassettes and manila folders were in order, I took a deep breath and said, “Mr. Crocker, I am aware that Posadas Patrolman Thomas Pasquale has informed you of your rights, but I want to go over this document with you.” I turned a printed copy of the Miranda warning and slid it until it touched his knuckles. He didn’t move.

I threaded my way, one sentence at a time, through the legalese. When I finished, Wesley Crocker nodded mutely.

“Mr. Crocker, do you understand your rights as you have read them, and as they have been explained to you?”

“Yes, sir.” His voice was husky, and his hand was already rising to take the pen I held out.

“If you have no questions, you need to sign and date the document.” He did so.

I sat down directly across the table from him. Sheriff Holman remained standing near the door, beside the hulking, red-haired Deputy Bishop. “Mr. Crocker, I think you know everyone in the room except Detective Reyes-Guzman.” Estelle sat to my right, at the end of the table. She regarded Crocker without expression.

“Yes, sir.” He turned his head and nodded at Estelle. “Good evening, ma’am.” He might as well have been talking to stone.

“Mr. Crocker, do you know why you’re here?”

“Yes, sir, I do.”

“Are you willing to talk to us without counsel?” He nodded. “I need an audible answer for the tape recorder, Mr. Crocker.”

He looked up quickly, as if he were alarmed at committing such an indiscretion. “Of course I’ll talk with you, sir. Whatever you need to know.”

“Would you state your full name?”

“Wesley Albert Crocker, Junior.”

I fingered the worn Social Security card and the faded military identification card that Pasquale had taken from Crocker’s wallet when he’d arrested him.

“How old are you, Mr. Crocker?”

“I’m fifty-one.”

“Do you have a permanent address?”

“No, sir, I don’t. I kind of use a sister’s address when there’s a need, but otherwise, no.”

“Where’s your sister live now?”

“Anaheim, California.”

“Yesterday afternoon, I picked you up on State 17 just west of town and then dropped you off in the vicinity of the Don Juan de O?ate restaurant.” Crocker nodded. “What did you do then?”

“I went and had me something to eat, is what I did.”

“You just ate and that’s all?”

He hesitated. “Well, no. It was early yet, and the young lady…”

“The hostess?”

“Yes. She said I was free to take up a booth just as long as I wanted. So seeing as it was early yet, I just sat right there and watched the weather go by.”

“You remained in the restaurant for some two or three hours?” Holman asked. “Just staring out the window?”

“Well, sir,” Wesley Crocker said, “I got to admit that I imposed a little on this good man’s generosity. I had me another plateful, not too long before you two gentlemen arrived at the restaurant.”

“So you left the restaurant shortly after six?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Where did you go?”

Crocker frowned at the table. I watched his hands, watched as his right index finger traced and retraced an imperfection in the oak grain. “I walked up the main street, there. I forget the name. The waitress had said that I might try the park as a place to camp out, that probably nobody would bother me there. That’s the park you mentioned, good sir,” he said, glancing up at me. “So I did just that. I walked until I saw the old tank, just like you said, and the two cannons.”

“And you were going to camp there?”

“Well, I thought I might give it a look. I found me a spot to sit for a bit, so I could look at that old tank and wonder about how old Black Jack Pershing ever thought he was going to catch Pancho Villa using something that slow and noisy.” He grinned. “I wished the village had put one of those airplanes he used. I would have liked to have seen that. But I guess they wouldn’t weather so well, the canvas covering and all.”

“How long did you stay there?”

He turned his head slightly, apologetic. “It was pretty much after dark, but I don’t tend to keep track of such things, you know.” He shrugged. “I got my health still, and the good Lord has seen fit to let me go my own way, so I don’t bother much with keeping up with the time. It just passes as it passes.”

Estelle hadn’t moved a muscle during the conversation. She still regarded Crocker expressionlessly, her deep, black eyes studying his whiskered, ruddy face. I would have liked to have known what she was thinking, but I would find out in due time.

“You decided not to spend the night in the park?”

He nodded. “It just seemed kind of open, you know. Like bedding down on somebody’s front step, with those busy streets on each side.”

I hadn’t thought of the streets of Posadas as busy.

Crocker continued, “So I was just ambling along, thinking I’d go over to that convenience store that’s just a bit south. Maybe see if they had any newspapers or magazines. There was about half a dozen youngsters there, and that’s the first time I saw the village police.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, I was just leaning my bike up against the side of the store, kind of around the side there, behind the telephone booth, when the black-and-white drives up. The officer gets out and he starts talking to the youngsters kind of mean-like.”

“Mean-like?”

“Well, his tone of voice was hard, if you know what I mean. I couldn’t hear just what the argument was, but after just a little bit the officer grabs one of the kids by the arm and swings him around so he thumps up against the car. He sure had a swagger to him, that young fellow did.”

“The youngster, or the police officer?”

“The policeman. Anyway, I just tried to mind my own business. I went inside the store and got talking to the clerk-young fella there surprised me by knowing something about the area. We shot the breeze for maybe ten minutes, and he told me of this old mining town east and south of here that I should visit. I said I would, and he gave me a copy of one of his Mining West magazines. I sure did appreciate that. He’s the one who suggested I might camp out over in that grove of trees at the end of the athletic field.”

“And did you?”

“Yes, sir, I did.” He grinned. “I leaned my bike against the fence at the end of the football field and found me a nice spot in the middle of them trees. Had it all arranged just fine. And then seeing as how I didn’t have enough light to read by, and it was early yet, I hopped over that low fence there and plunked myself down right under the goalposts. Had me a night sky view all the way to Peru, I guess.”

“And that’s where you stayed?”

He nodded vehemently.

I looked down at the folder. There had been no time for Thomas Pasquale to fill out the reams of paperwork still facing him.

“When did you see the police officer again?”

Crocker pursed his lips. “Well, like I say, I don’t carry a watch. But it was after the kids left from across the way.”

“What do you mean by that? Across the way where, and what kids?”

“Sure enough, over behind the school. There was a couple cars full of them. Kind of sidled around behind the gymnasium, there. One of the cars left after a bit, but the other stayed on. Now and then I’d hear voices coming’ across. They were just doing what kids do, I guess.” He squirmed uncomfortably.

“Did they ever see you?”

“I don’t think so. If they did, they never let on. And then the other car, it left, too.”

“And you have no idea what time that was?”

“No, sir, I don’t.” His face brightened. “I was sure enjoying my grandstand view of Orion, though.”

“Orion?”

“The constellation. I was staring at it, letting my mind wander here and there, way up there where those stars were.”

“And after the kids left, things were quiet?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then what happened?”

His forehead creased. “Sometime later, this young police officer arrived. I’d gone back in the trees, and I guess I’d drifted off. I woke up when I heard the car pull in on the other side of the field, right across from where the big bleachers and speaker’s building are. He got out, jumped that little fence there, and darned if he didn’t jog right across the field to the bleachers. That’s when I got up and walked on over to the fence.”

“But by this time the two other vehicles that you saw earlier had gone?”

He nodded. “That’s why I was curious, I guess. I saw his light over under the bleachers for a bit, and then he come out like his tail was afire.”

“When did he see you?”

“I don’t know, sir. I truly don’t. But it could have been at just about any time. I was just standing there, leanin’ on the fence. He got to his car and sat in it for a minute or two with the door open. I could hear some bits and snatches of radio talk. And then he got out and walked right down the sidelines fence and cut across to where I was camped.”

“And what happened?”

“I saw it was a young fella, the same one from the convenience store earlier. He was breathin’ hard and edgy and had his hand right on the handle of his gun. So I thought to myself, Wesley Crocker, if he says stand on your head, you just say ‘yes, sir’ and do it.”

“What did he say to you?”

“He asked me to stand up, and I did. He asked me how long I’d been there, and I told him. He asked for identification, and I gave him all I had, those two cards right there.” He reached out and pointed at the folder. “And then he told me I was under arrest.”

Crocker looked up at me, his light gray eyes puzzled. “I didn’t know what for, except maybe trespass, and I surely would have left if he’d just said so.”

“When did you find out what the arrest charge was, Mr. Crocker?”

“When I heard everyone talking down at the police station.” He turned to Martin Holman. “I believe when you came in, sir,” and he turned back to me. “The good sheriff here and the officer were talking about a body found under the bleachers. Terrible thing.” He shook his head. “It’s the times, it truly is.”

I leaned back and took a deep breath, gazing at Wesley Crocker, trying to assess what might be going on in his mind.

“Mr. Crocker, why did you call me?”

He gazed at me for a long minute, his face composed. The crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes crinkled. “I called you because I knew something about you, and right then I needed somebody who didn’t have no axes to grind, who could see things in a fair light.”

“All that because I spotted you a meal and some cigarettes?”

“Well, there’s that,” Wesley Crocker said. “But mostly because you never asked me where I was going or where I’d been.” Out of the corner of my eye I saw Estelle’s left eyebrow lift. It was the first expression I’d seen on her face since we entered the room.

I looked down at the folder and its meager contents, then snapped it shut. “What a goddamn mess,” I said.

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